Fake news and truth, what really matters?

I have written about the importance of authenticity and transparency for brands in the era of digital, and coined the term, “free marketing” space. Free relates to freedom of speech, the notion that customers are no longer only influenced by a brand’s voice, but also by its customers’ feedback and reviews; thus, the truth really matters. Customers now easily express themselves, for all to read, based on their direct experiences with a brand. Offer a great experience, get a thoughtful, personal, five-star review. Short-change your customer and lookout!

What does this mean for us marketers? It means we need to try to provide an outstanding brand experience, at all times. Any missteps need to be handled with due care, and out in the open.

This sounds like an era of truth, where truth to the brand experience is paramount. So how can we rationalize this with the explosion of “fake news“?

Two aspects of this freedom brought on by the internet contrive to also create circumstances where fake news flourishes.

The notion of freedom of speech, which is enshrined in western democracies, does also mean that anyone can speak, and speak about what they want, with only limited recourse; essentially, opinions can become more important than facts, if you repeat them often enough. As a result, truth in content is less important than content that is engaging.

So while freedom of speech has been a very positive result of the internet, in terms of allowing customers to fully engage in the dialogue around brand experiences in the free marketing space, freedom of speech has also allowed nefarious actors (that can deploy a variety of troll mechanisms) to use those same freedoms to express their points of view, without recourse. Essentially, the internet has provided them a fertile platform to spread their content far and wide.

And there is also another interesting aspect of digital marketing at play: viral marketing. When you create a piece of content that is shocking, absurd, or humorous, it has a greater chance of going viral (read Jonah Berger for more insights into what pre-conditions are necessary to improve the likelihood of making content go viral).

Untruths are more likely to be shocking, thus untruths (misinformation) will have an exaggerated share of voice in the digital landscape. When untruths support a point of view, or a set of values of an individual, you have a cocktail ready to stoke the engine of viral growth, and willing nodes ready to share those untruths (even if unwittingly, in many cases). To add to this, there are mechanisms like fake accounts and click farms that further spread fake content far and wide. (As an aside, Google seems to have done a much better job of eliminating “black hat” techniques in search optimization, than social media platforms are doing in the free marketing place.)

This sharing and engagement of fake news is exacerbated by the business models of social media platforms that focus on advertising, which means clicks. Clicks that are optimized by the hungry, and ever improving, algorithms.

So how does fake news and misinformation impact the digital marketing of brands? Do brands really need to extol the truth in their brand messaging, or can brands, too, fake it?

No they can’t.

As consumers, we are generally more passionate about our values, beliefs and ideology, than we are about the brands that we admire. Thus we have more incentive to spread messaging that focuses on those values and beliefs. In psychology, we would explain this as the result of a confirmation bias effect. And ultimately we exist in an echo chamber of like-minded people, where our values and beliefs are continually reinforced, without check. Consider this, have you shared a piece of content that supports your point of view, without actually reading the detail of the piece? I know I have.

Contrarily, brands need to stick to the truth of the brand experience they provide; if they don’t, the blow back on social media (and review sites) will be harsh; review IKEA’s social media channels for examples, customer complaints litter the comments of even the most beautiful posts.

Brands can focus some of their content marketing on the values of their customers, values that support their customers’ beliefs, if they want to seek out a cohort of customers who may be willing to share that content. However, critical to this strategy is that the values shared must be core to the brand’s DNA, the brand’s truth. Nike is an example of a brand that does this well; it can engage in the BLM conversations, for example, because it has a history with this movement, not least, with Colin Kaepernick.

For politics and social issues, we need to figure out how to better incentivize truth; unlike brands, they don’t have customers demanding their truth.